An Irish-American Idealist: Samantha Power

Photo of Samantha Power in South Sudan
The UN Security Council visited South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, in 2016, where Samantha Power, the US envoy to the UN, led the entourage. As the Council boarded a UN plane to leave the country and go home, she said that it “does not mean that we are going to forget about them.” UNMISS

In her enjoyable memoir, “The Education of an Idealist,” Samantha Power shifts easily between her family life and her challenging career adventures. She draws on her Irish roots in storytelling — coming to the United States from Dublin at age 9 with her mother and younger brother. And she makes no effort along the way to avoid mentioning her own mistakes amid her many accomplishments.

As a new immigrant, with a love of sports that she hoped would help her fit in easily, she practiced speaking “American” in front of a mirror and tried to incorporate the new slang she was learning from friends.

Delighted to be admitted to Yale University in 1988, she quickly became a sportswriter for the student newspaper and took a job that first summer as an intern in the sports department with a CBS affiliate in Atlanta, where her family then lived. While in the glass booth where she worked, she noticed a nearby TV screen showing soldiers firing on civilians and students demonstrating for democratic reforms in China’s Tiananmen Square. It made a deep impression. She later posted in her dorm room a Time Magazine cover of one of the Chinese tanks. It was a turning point in her decision to become a history major with a strong interest in international affairs and human rights.

By the time she graduated from Yale, the Berlin Wall had fallen and war was raging in southeastern Europe. Power took another internship, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C. There she met a British journalist who suggested that she visit the Balkans. He got her an invitation to attend a conference in newly independent Slovenia. She stayed in the region for more than two years, working as a freelance journalist. The atrocities and suffering she witnessed had a major impact on the rest of her career. She decided that what she most wanted to do in life was to make a difference.

She enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she kept an “all-consuming focus on Bosnia,” returning twice to Sarajevo, the capital, that first year. She also took time off to teach some courses in foreign policy and human rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School before graduating from law school in 1999.

Based on a paper she had written there, she began work on her first book — “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Though first rejected by several publishers, the book finally came out in March 2002, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize. It was Peter Galbraith, whom she had met in Croatia when he was the US ambassador there, who suggested that she send the book to a friend of Senator Barack Obama, in Illinois. She had not yet met him but writes that she was inspired by his “soaring, inclusive” message at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

She soon shipped off the book. Several months later, she received an email from an Obama scheduler, noting that the senator would like to have dinner with her when she was next in Washington. A conversation began that would long continue. In all, the author spent more than eight years working with the Obama administration — first as a campaigner and foreign policy adviser — and later in varied roles with the National Security Council, where she found the bureaucratic hurdles high. In his second term, Obama tapped her as US ambassador to the UN.

Her friends had told her that the hardest part of working with Obama would be “taming my outspokenness.” They had a point. The two became good friends, and Obama often praised her values and goals. However, as the ultimate decider on policy risks versus advantages, he also told her more than once: “You get on my nerves.” In a similar vein, while at the UN, the Mexican ambassador once told her she had to decide whether she was a diplomat or an activist: “You can’t be both,” he insisted. She replied: “I am both. We should all be both!”

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She comes across in the book as a passionate activist who would like to right every global wrong, yet over time, she saw the need to settle for smaller steps. She focused at the UN on building coalitions. Early on, she set herself a goal of meeting one on one with each permanent representative to the UN, she said (except for North Korea’s). She wanted to learn these people’s stories and hear about the issues that most concerned them.

Before taking on her first job at the White House, she married Cass Sunstein on a rainy day in Dublin in 2008. He had taught constitutional law with Obama at the University of Chicago. She writes that she and Cass had had “a blast” while working together in Iowa on behalf of Obama’s campaign. Over time the couple had two children — Declan and Rian — who are mentioned often in the book.

During Obama’s first term as president, Power worked at the White House, initially as a senior director of the National Security Council. She closely followed US foreign policy and was actively engaged in discussions and decisions. She insists that she tried never to identify a problem without suggesting solutions.

She paid particular attention to the long, violent crackdown on demonstrators and critics by the Muammar el-Qaddafi government in Libya. Obama called for the leader’s resignation, and his US assets were frozen. Power happened to be at home in 2011 with her two-and-a-half year old son, Declan, when she learned that Qaddafi finally had met his demise — executed by opposition forces. As she slowly absorbed the news, she remarked to Declan that “Qaddafi is GONE.” Her son promptly marched around the apartment, saying, “Coffee is gone, coffee is gone!”

At one point, she got herself designated as White House Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees. She was especially concerned about the safety of Iraqi translators and notes proudly that some 17,000 Iraqi refugees were admitted to the US each year during the Obama administration. She also lobbied successfully for the creation of a new position at the National Security Council — director for war crimes and atrocities.

At the UN, she spent many hours in Security Council meetings. There were 263 sessions just in her first year. She reports that her first major Council resolution involved an operation to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons used in its lengthy civil war. Originally, Obama had set a red line on the use of such weapons, threatening air strikes. He later retreated, deciding he needed Congress’s approval first. He did not get it. Her Council resolution, however, did pass. “I secured the strongest deal possible in circumstances where our leverage had been badly dented,” she writes.

She also initiated the Council’s first discussion of North Korea’s “brutal” treatment of its own people and helped to push through several other important Council resolutions. They ranged from human-rights issues (including condemnation of attacks based on sexual orientation) and help in ending the Ebola crisis in West Africa. She made several trips to troubled regions of Africa to gather information firsthand, and she lobbied the UN secretary-general to chair a General Assembly event that raised $186 million in humanitarian aid for those affected by Boko Haram terrorist attacks in West Africa.

Obama assured her, “I don’t know anyone who cares more about people, and I couldn’t be prouder of you.”

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Thanks to a habit of copious note-taking, perhaps developed when she was first a reporter, the reader gets a vivid look into many such historic conversations. Her chapters are short, and the prose is lively. And we wonder what she will do in the next stage of her life.

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Lucia Mouat

Lucia Mouat

Lucia Mouat is the author of "The UN's Top Job," a book about UN secretaries-general. She holds a B.A. in international relations from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Academic Council on the United Nations System. A longtime correspondent and editorial writer for The Christian Science Monitor, she covered the UN as her last assignment. She lives in Chicago.

1 thought on “An Irish-American Idealist: Samantha Power”

  1. Wow, what a puffball of a review of someone whose time in office was filled with contradictions. People in positions of power, like Samantha Power, deserve much more serious scrutiny of their claims. For a much better review, see Michael Barnett’s review in Ethics and International Affairs, July 2020.

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